On Banana Fibers: Considering the Social Mandate for Design

Metro Cable in Caracas, Venezuela, featured in the MoMA exhibit “Small Scale, Big Change“. Image credit: Iwaan Ban.

I co-wrote this article with Avinash Rajagopal as part of the second issue of the “New City Reader — A Newspaper of Public Space,” October 22, 2010. This was a newspaper edited by Joseph Grima and Kazys Varnelis, as part of the New Museum’s “The Last Newspaper” exhibition, which ran from October 2010 till January 2011.

Elizabeth Scharpf reached into a tote bag, and with all the flair of a Vegas conjuror, pulled out strand after white candy floss strand of banana fibers. “This is the local material we chose to work with,” she announced. The rabbit Scharpf was pulling out of the hat was her miraculous sanitary pad innovation for Rwandan village women. The occasion—her acceptance speech for the Curry Stone Design Prize 2010, which she won for the “social venture SHE which launches businesses to address some of the world’s most pressing problems.”
As ever, the world seems extraordinarily pressed with problems. The ice caps are melting, ducks are covered with crude oil, children are starving somewhere in Africa, and we’re losing our jobs. If the multitude of conferences, awards and exhibitions in New York are anything to go by, architects and designers are all over it. The Cooper Hewitt’s Why Design Now? symposium—where Scharpf’s banana fibers were first greeted by appreciative titters—answered its titular question with the rather ambitious title “Solving Global Challenges.” A new show at MoMA, Small Scale, Big Change, is advocating social engagement in architecture, through eleven projects from around the world. And the Curry Stone Design Prize 2010 puts a $100,000 price tag to addressing “critical issues such as access to clean air, food and water, shelter, health care, energy, education, social justice and the promotion of peace.”

It’s clear to any designer listening—big problems are the only problems worth solving. The first of which, of course, was the inconvenient truth. But with its emphasis on reducing materials and cutting back on wasteful consumption, sustainability could only offer so much fuel for the design machine. Design has since moved from protecting the ozone layer to saving underprivileged people. At the Why Design Now? conference, the panel on green design was just a pit stop on the way to the biggest goal of them all—Design for Social Change.

Presentations like Stephen Burks’ and Timothy Prestero’s won the crowd over. Burks brings business from the developed world to artisans in less fortunate places. He is currently working on a TV show in which he will fly to places like Nicaragua and Senegal, spend ten days with a struggling, yet skilled craftsperson, and produce globally successful products. Prestero, the head of the touchingly named firm Design that Matters, is an engineer working in hospitals in Nepal. Shocked by the inhumane infant care facilities, Prestero worked with local nurses to fashion a baby incubator for the developing world—made of car parts. The formula for changing the world through design is at hand: go backpacking through a third world country of your choice, find an underprivileged community with a big, intractable problem, and solve it with a small, local solution.

The inherent asymmetry of this rationale is too perfect. The dramatic idea of a small intervention producing meaningful change in a society is especially appealing to the designer’s ego. While we’re at it, the massive effort can be conveniently reduced to a series of beneficient images. These images are also a dutiful curator’s dream come true. At the MoMA’s Small Scale, Big Change, almost all the architectural projects feature at least one smiling, colored person, jubilant at this gift from the all-knowing architect. Neoro Wolff Architects photographed their Red Location Museum of Struggle in South Africa, with African children riding bicycles in the foreground. Adorable Venezuelan kids share a hilarious joke sitting in Urban Think-Tank’s Metro Cable in Caracas. Curator Andres Lepik actually travelled to each of the projects, to assure himself of their success (what criteria he used to measure this success, we are kept blissfully in the dark).

Instead, we have the procession of freighted images, not unlike those deployed by hunger- and poverty-oriented NGOs since the 1980s, standing as their own guarantors of efficacy. The smile on a child’s face is proof of the designer’s achievement. If the Rwandan women and the Nepali doctors seem satisfied at the moment of the snapshot, then we are to believe that all is well. These people hang in timeless limbo, their positive futures inferred. All other information is secondary, not of immediate concern. The idyllic image reigns supreme, aesthetizing the “other,” the denizen of the developing world rounding the corner from despair to designed.

So much so, that it is replacing the slick computer rendering as the aspirational image for designers and architects. The promise of gritty reality is a siren call for those of us who’d like to think of ourselves as socially-responsible. Succoring people in a remote land and an alien culture is a designerly atonement for our colonial past and our consumerist present. There may be significance to the fact that the Curry Stone Design Prize went to Elizabeth Scharpf, an American working in Africa; rather than to Chilean architects building in Chile, or a Guatemalan co-operative working in its own country.

The visual onslaught of the Design for Social Change movement has ensured that we all go about our New York lives, carrying the entire developing world in our heads. The new mandate for design means that even as we slouch over shiny MacBooks in our Brooklyn studios, our thoughts are with the menstruating girls in Rwanda.

Lost in this well-meaning wave of design output is a discussion about the limits of the practice. How can design have a role in resolving the abject disparities and tensions (new and old) that greets a globalized twenty-first century? Where is the consideration of politics and economic policy should be when introducing these “Solutions”? Before we get swept away by this rather lopsided vision of Western design saving the world, someone should fund a new design exercise. Let’s bring the Rwandan girls to New York, and have them take a good look at our problems. How would they see our exorbitant real estate, our obsession with fashion, our constant need for speed? We want to change their world with banana fibers, maybe they will transform our society with cream cheese bagels.